baby in bed

Mention the word pollution and most people think of factory emissions and traffic fumes. Step inside your home, hide under the blanket and you’re safe, right? Wrong. The air we breathe under the lovely patchwork bedspread can contain hundreds of noxious chemicals, seeping from the mattress and the bed itself.

In fact, you may be sleeping in a cloud of formaldehyde contained in your permanent-press bed sheets that could cause tiredness, insomnia, headaches, coughing, and skin irritations. Your bed is most likely made of plywood that is manufactured using glue that emits even more formaldehyde. The furniture polish spews off phenol, a suspected carcinogen that can irritate the skin.

Your mattress may be made of flame-retardant polyurethane foam that spews polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Even if you sleep on a spring mattress, it may be treated with fire retardants, just as your pillows and blankets are. Do we really need it? According to statistics, 6 babies die in fires across the U.S. At the same time, millions of families inhale toxic fire retardant emissions every night. You do the math.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers are known hormone disruptors which accumulate in placenta and contaminates breast milk. These volatile compounds don’t biodegrade. Instead, they accumulate in the air contributing to indoor air pollution.

Scientists from University of California in Berkeley estimated than pregnant women in the United States have 20 to 40 times higher levels of PBDE in blood than women observed in Europe or Japan.

Across the world, PBDEs are withdrawn from the market after scientists linked PBDEs to developmental effects and a tendency to linger in humans and wildlife.

In June 2007 California accepted a bill that bans the use of either chlorinated or brominated fire retardants in domestic furniture or bedding such as mattresses, pillows and comforters. The bill would remove from manufacturers’ arsenal two of the most commonly used flame retardants: Tris, banned from children’s pajamas in the 1970s amid toxicity concerns; and Firemaster 550, a brand marketed as a replacement for “Penta,” a type of PBDE banned in California earlier in the decade.

For curious minds, here are two ingredients listed on Firemaster 550 Material Safety Data Sheet: Ingredient A, Ingredient B. That’s right. It’s a heck of a toxic trade secret.

But there are hundreds of thousands of mattresses and pillows that were soaked in fire retardant before the legislators banned their use. Here’s what you should do: Replace your mattress if it’s at least two years old. Your hypoallergenic pillow stuffed with synthetic fiber should also get a boot. Organic mattresses made of naturally fire-retardant wool, rubber, coir and cotton which are completely untreated are now available from many online retailers and may even be available at your local mattress store. Buy pillows that are made of feathers or wool. If you suffer from allergies, buy a pillow made of natural latex foam.

If forking out a month’s salary for a mattress is out of question, head on to IKEA. Since 2002 the Swedish furniture giant makes very comfortable mattresses and tasteful bedroom furniture that are completely free of PBDEs. IKEA’s baby furniture and mattresses have been PBDE-free for the last 15 years. Serta also makes mattresses that are free from toxic fire retardants.

Replacing your whole bedroom may be financially challenging but it doesn’t mean you will have to continue sleeping in a toxic cloud if money is scarce. You can toxin-proof your current mattress by placing a thick organic mattress pad or at least a protector on top. Organic mattress pads are usually made of untreated naturally flame-resistant wool or natural latex for allergy sufferers. You can also temporarily get away with a generously cut organic duvet placed between a mattress and your sheets – staple or sew it to the mattress underneath to prevent it from slipping and creasing.

When it comes to bed linens, opt for unbleached organic cotton, linen or hemp. These cost more than conventional linens but will last a lifetime since chlorine bleaching damages the fibers and shorten the lifespan of a conventional bed sheet or pillow cover. Unbleached naturally-dyed cottons and linen will last more because the fibers aren’t broken. Comb the eco-catalogs and online stores for products like organic or transitional cotton sheets (organically-grown cotton on previously sprayed fields) and organic cotton pillow covers. Duvets with natural fillings such as silk, hemp, feathers or down are not usually expensive but will keep your luxuriously warm and chemical-free, too.

Critics point out that natural materials are more likely to trap allergens and moisture. To minimize this risk, make it a habit to air your mattress regularly by removing your bed linens and opening your windows wide, if it’s a winter, or taking the mattress outside and leaving under bright sun when it’s warm.